Sometimes God seems distant, if not entirely absent.
Sometimes silence seems all we hear when we yearn for a word from the Lord.
Israel must have felt this way when Moses didn’t return from Mount Sinai for more than a month. Where was their leader? Would he ever come back? Had he perished on the mountain? Had God even destroyed him because approaching the divine can be dangerous? Would God speak again to them, and would they be able to hear Him?
It’s easy to read the golden calf narrative in Exodus 32 describing Israel’s obvious idolatrous turning away from God and forget that sometimes God seems distant, hidden, or even absent to us as well.
You may have wondered about God’s absence in your own life. I have. Here are some of these moments as I remember them in my life.
I wondered where God was when my parents told me as a 17-year-old teenager that they wanted a separation and, ultimately, a divorce.
I wondered about God’s seeming silence to my wife’s and my passionate prayers when we had to wait what felt like an eternity to receive an invitation to mission service, ultimately taking us to Peru. It may have been only eight months, but it felt so much longer.
I wondered about God’s hiddenness when our phone rang early one morning while we served in Argentina, and we heard the news that my father had unexpectedly died—alone and two weeks prior to the phone call.
I wondered why God apparently didn’t hear our prayers when my wife suffered a miscarriage in Peru—and it didn’t get easier when we experienced a second miscarriage two years later.
We wonder and wait—for better answers, a clearer picture, a safe place.
What about people living in the Ukraine following the February 24, 2022, Russian invasion, wondering about the hidden God as rockets or mortars hit their homes, their trains, their power lines, and also their dreams? What about people living in Ethiopia or Tigray who have faced seemingly endless civil war and large-scale destruction and hunger? We could add to that list for quite a while.
We often wonder about God’s hiddenness as we consider a world that seems to get closer every week to spinning out of control.
REBELLION AND DISTANCE
Israel’s response to their waiting and wondering didn’t lead to real answers. They exchanged the silent (or hidden) God for a mute calf made of gold. Their rebellion resulted in punishment (see Ex. 32:28) and more silence. In fact, God’s response to Israel’s unfaithfulness was often marked by distance and divine sorrow, as also noted later by Israel’s prophets (Isa. 8:17; 54:8; Jer. 33:5; Eze. 39:23, 24; Micah 3:4). Listen to Deuteronomy 32:20, a part of the Song of Moses that reviews Israel’s history with God: “He [God] said: I will hide my face from them [Israel], I will see what their end will be; for they are a perverse generation, children in whom there is no faithfulness” (NRSV).
That’s a strong and loud statement by the God who offers grace again and again and who showed us His love and compassion by coming into this sin-filled world and carrying our guilt and our sins unto a rough wooden cross.
FINDING THE HIDDEN GOD
The Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, best known for his existential philosophy of the I-Thou encounter or dialogue, suggests that we can only truly exist as we encounter and engage with the world around us. Our perilous existence requires us to search for the sometimes silent or hidden God who is eager to be truly found. Who of us knows if we will survive a trip to the supermarket tomorrow? Can we guarantee the safe return of our children going to school? Are we sure we will be able to enjoy the long-anticipated dream vacation in another part of the world?
In 1952 Buber wrote a book titled The Eclipse of God, where he likens God’s temporary hiddenness to an eclipse of the sun.1 In a solar eclipse the moon passes between the earth and the sun, and the world is covered temporarily in darkness. During an eclipse of God, as during the Holocaust, for instance, people behave in ways that make it hard, if not impossible, for God to be seen. But God is present. God is not dead, but eclipsed—alive, yet invisible to human eyes.2
But is God really absent, invisible, and cannot be known? When we fast-forward two chapters from the golden calf episode found in Exodus 32, we come across one of the most powerful self-disclosures of God that can be found in Scripture—only to be bested by the incarnation of the living Word more than a millennium later. This divine self-disclosure is referenced again and again by later Old Testament writers and offers us a magnifying glass perspective of God’s character.
God instructs Moses to cut two new tablets of stone on which He would write the Ten Commandments by His own hand, replacing the ones that had been smashed by Moses in a covenant-rupture ritual as he descended the mountain (Ex. 34:1). The covenant, endangered by Israel’s action, is still valid, and God is willing and able to offer a way forward. But it all begins with reminding Moses and Israel of the character of the Lawgiver and Covenant Maker. God meets Moses by passing before Him. Listen to what Moses heard at that moment, for he couldn’t look directly at God’s goodness and live: “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, yet by no means clearing the guilty, but visiting the iniquity of the parents upon the children and the children’s children, to the third and fourth generation” (verses 6, 7, NRSV).
Mercy, compassion, grace, steadfast love, abundance, and faithfulness are key ingredients of God’s character. His forgiveness reaches a thousand generations into the future while His justice is limited to the third and fourth generation directly affected by the transgressions and sins of those who have chosen to stop looking for the hidden and, at times, eclipsed God, and have distrusted God’s motives and His actions.3
THE WONDER OF GOD’S LOVE
In a 2019 Pew Research report, “10 Facts About Atheists,” I was struck by one finding in particular—the other nine were fairly expected, including the fact that atheism is growing significantly in the United States, that the typical atheist is male, identifies as a politically liberal Democrat, and looks to science for life guidance.4 But there was one fact that surprised me and that may be useful when we think about the, at times, eclipsed God of Scripture whose hiddenness also affects our lives: Atheists were more likely than American Christians to say they experienced “a deep sense of wonder about the universe” at least once a week.
Are we ready and willing to look for the wonder of God’s presence and handwriting perceivable in the universe—or in the lives of those surrounding us? Can we, once again, stop for a moment today and, while recognizing that God is at times hidden or even eclipsed, see that He is never absent and always on the move to bless His creation because He is gracious, compassionate, merciful, steadfast, faithful, and abounding in goodness?Perhaps there can be a purpose to God’s silence. Perhaps moments when He seems hidden can draw us, can motivate us, to move closer, look more carefully, and engage more deeply with the invisible God who longs to draw us to Himself.
1 Martin Buber, The Eclipse of God (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1952).
2 I was first introduced to Buber’s thinking on this in Rabbi Dennis S. Ross, A Year With Martin Buber: Wisdom on the Weekly Torah Portion (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 2021), pp. 89-92.
3 I have argued elsewhere that the reference to the third and fourth generation is really code language for household, as households and clans in Israel were multigenerational. As people living together under one roof impact each other directly, the divine punishment strategy becomes more understandable. See Gerald A. Klingbeil, “Between ‘I’ and ‘We’: The Anthropology of the Hebrew Bible and Its Importance for a Twenty-first Century Ecclesiology,” Bulletin for Biblical Research 19, no. 3 (2009): 319-339.
4 Michael Lipka, “10 Facts About Atheists,” Pew Research Center, Dec. 6, 2019, https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2019/12/06/10-facts-about-atheists/.